SFF Works Linked by One Canadian University

You might not immediately identify Ontario’s University of Waterloo as a hotbed of speculative fiction writing. The establishment is far better known for its STEM programs, baffled-looking first-year students, the horrifying things in the tunnels, and vast flocks of velociraptor-like geese. So you may be surprised to learn that the University has produced a number of science fiction and fantasy authors over the years. For example….

 

The earliest UW work of which I am aware is Thomas J. Ryan’s 1977 The Adolescence of P-1. In this vintage text, University of Waterloo student Gregory Burgess writes P-1 (what we would now call a virus) to covertly commandeer computer resources for Burgess. Its spread isn’t covert enough; Burgess is outed and expelled. His creation lives on, however, spreading across the rudimentary computer networks of the late Disco Era and eventually achieving self-awareness and intelligence.

P-1 is determined to survive at any cost. In an era when computer resources were far rarer than they are now, the computers of the American military-industrial complex were an obvious source of computing cycles. Alas, like its creator, P-1 is not as subtle as it might be, something that sets it on a direct course for conflict with the largest military power on the planet.

Rather frustratingly, while UW was aware of the novel (it got a review in one of the on-campus papers) and while it was enough of a hit to get a movie adaptation, nobody at UW knows anything about Ryan beyond his name, which (and I mean no insult) is far too general for Google to be of much use. ISFDB lists only the bare essentials. While the novel is very much of its period, it holds up surprisingly well. Also, it was the first work I ever encountered that is set at UW. Until P-1, I would not have considered such a thing possible.


 

Jon Evans may be best known as that tween who wandered into my game store in the 1980s…. wait, no. I’ve just been informed that he earned an engineering degree at UW, is inexplicably now in his forties, and is best known as an award-winning journalist, traveller, and novelist. Although most of his novels are not speculative fiction, a number of them are, including ForeWord Medal of the Year winner Beasts of New York. In it, stalwart Patch, son of Silver, of the Seeker clan, of the Treetops tribe, of the Center Kingdom, and all of his people face calamity. An overlong winter means Patch and company have eaten all their stores before new food can be gathered. Famine looms.

Famine is a disaster for most but an opportunity for a few. For the King Beneath and those who serve him, food shortages are a tool to transform New York, to gather some of the inhabitants under the rule of the King Beneath while exterminating those who resist. The fate of his people and the other beasts of New York rests on the shoulders of Patch. Who is a squirrel; Patch’s friends and enemies are also talking animals, and his great foe is something of which it is best not to speak. Although talking animals are often relegated to children’s fare, Evans’ model here is the thrillers for which he is known; don’t read this to your kids at bedtime unless you want them to have insomnia and an entirely justified fear of faceless sewer dwellers.


 

Julie Czerneda studied biology at the University of Waterloo. Since her debut novel A Thousand Words for Stranger appeared in 1997, twenty further novels, eighteen anthologies and about thirty shorter pieces have seen print, earning her no less than six Aurora wins, a Golden Duck special award, and staggering number of nominations for various prizes. Most recent among her books is 2019’s The Gossamer Mage, in which the Deathless Goddess offers the people of Tananen magic, but at a dreadful cost. Cast magic long enough and you will die. Resisting the lure of magic is difficult. One sorcerer sets out to free Tananen from its dread mistress. There are, however, much worse things in this world than the Deathless Goddess; freedom may only be the freedom to be consumed.


 

James Alan Gardner has a B.Math and M.Math in Applied Mathematics from the University of Waterloo. His first novel, Expendable, appeared in 1997. Over the course of his career, he has placed on his mantelpiece two Aurora Awards and a Sturgeon; he has earned nine Aurora nominations and two Hugo nominations.

Like P1, Gardner’s The Dark and the Spark series (2017’s All Those Explosions Were Someone Else’s Fault and 2018’s They Promised Me The Gun Wasn’t Loaded) is set on the University of Waterloo campus. The UW depicted in P1 was comparatively mundane (rampaging AIs aside); Gardner’s version of UW features not just one but two varieties of super-powered beings. The Dark derive their abilities from infernal sources. The Light draw on a different source and manifest as superheroes. In Explosions, a mad scientist’s lab accident imbues University of Waterloo students Jools, K2, Miranda, and Shar with powers beyond mortal ken. Superpowers do nothing to make life easier. Nor does the young students’ discovery that dark is not always evil and light is most definitely not good.


 

UW circa 1961 from the perspective of our home, taken by my father.

The odd thing about UWaterloo and its writers (which also includes poet and author Sarah Tolmie, whose work I’ve covered separately here) is that as far as I know there isn’t a community linking them all. Perhaps it’s a side effect of it being a university: people arrive, get their degrees (or don’t), and leave. There’s an educational connection, but it may not translate into a personal one. The SF club that might have fostered such a campus community seems to be on hiatus. It’s a pity. So if you’re somewhere with its own collection of authors, and there is a community, cherish it.

In the words of Wikipedia editor TexasAndroid, prolific book reviewer and perennial Darwin Award nominee James Davis Nicoll is of “questionable notability.” His work has appeared in Publishers Weekly and Romantic Times as well as on his own websites, James Nicoll Reviews and Young People Read Old SFF (where he is assisted by editor Karen Lofstrom and web person Adrienne L. Travis). He was a finalist for the 2019 Best Fan Writer Hugo Award, and is surprisingly flammable.

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